The colossus of bowlers
Geoff Lawson, the former Test bowler, delivers his tribute to Glenn McGrath, the Wisden Australia Cricketer of the Year.
Throughout Australia's dominance of world cricket, there has been much talk of the batting genius of Ponting, the broadening skills of Martyn, the determination and luck of Langer, the relative decline of Hayden and the striking purity of Gilchrist. The batsmen have broken records in huge volume, increased their scoring pace to unmatched levels and returned more newspaper and magazine column inches than their bowling counterparts. It is true that dynamic and aggressive batting have been significant ingredients of Australia's table-topping position. Other countries manage it only in spits and spurts - and, until this year, not consistently against the world champions. However, what is regularly overlooked is the performance of quality bowlers and Glenn McGrath, the attack's durable and outstanding leader.
Old timers would say "batsmen save games, bowlers win them". The one-day contest has bent that maxim out of shape, but when it comes to the longer format very little has changed. Yes, Australia score quickly. Yes, they give themselves more time to bowl out the opposition. But - it is an important but - they must still knock over their rivals twice. Having a quality leg-spinner is handy; owning the bowler of the century is much better. But before Shane Warne gets the ball, the swing, seam and snarl of McGrath and his first-class sidekicks come into play. It is something that has happened with astounding success for more than a decade.
At 35, McGrath looked at the start of the Ashes series, like a well-preserved middle-aged fast bowler rather than a greybeard having his last tilt at the English windmills. Not many international pacemen bowl into their mid-30s. A small number such as Courtney Walsh and Sir Richard Hadlee have become legends at a similar age, but they are the exceptions justifying Rule 1a of the quick brigade: "The more overs you bowl, the faster you will fall apart." For most of his career McGrath has kept himself together. While his colleagues have fallen to deteriorating backs, knees and shoulders - repetitive strain injuries are common in teenagers, not just 35-year-olds - McGrath's recent weakness has been the ankles.
From mid-2003 McGrath was forced into a 12-month hiatus due to problems with three bone spurs causing unbearable pain when he put his left foot down. Two operations were required and while his comeback was reportedly aborted on many occasions, McGrath was happy that it went to plan. However, by the time of his selection for the Sri Lanka Top End series in July 2004 there were doubts over his powers of recovery - except from the man himself.
The decision was controversial as his main gallops were limited to an end-of-season Pura Cup match, the one-day tour to Zimbabwe and a warm-up against the Sri Lankans for the Northern Territory Chief Minister's XI. McGrath's performances were not impressive, but as a veteran of more than 400 Test wickets he had up his sleeve a benefit-of-the-doubt card. Already a couple had been played, but he was entitled to another and the national selectors agreed. Fast bowlers rely on their legs and they gain strength from matches, not just the nets. McGrath needed more work and, most importantly, had to test his vital feet, which would carry him to the crease and support the pressure of up to 20 times his body weight at release.
Bleeding toes and aching ankles are part of the job description, but he had to know if his cleaned-up bones could sustain the Test load. While struggling to find quickly the death-and-taxes rhythm, McGrath openly doubted his ability to make a full comeback aged 34. In his initial outings his pace was down on the modest 130 kph he usually bowls; it was not the only thing that had seemingly diminished. The hitherto infallible radar was finding the middle of the bat instead of the edge. As he hit the crease he looked to be decelerating, he was lacking energy, his body was creaking and the results were poor. Pundits saw all the signs of rust and retirement.
Who would begrudge the most successful Australian seam bowler of all time a cup of tea and a good lie down? He had surely earned it. But that was not his way. McGrath soldiered on with the kind of self-belief that is at the core of any real champion. The recovery improved, the pain in the ankle faded and he was rapidly back to his best. In his first Test innings he took five wickets against Sri Lanka and then passed 450 on the unfriendly pitches of India, where a serious drought that started the year before he was born ended. Back in the southern hemisphere he destroyed New Zealand with 27 home-and-away wickets at 17.29 and sandwiched career-best figures of 8 for 24 against Pakistan in Perth. Each series was won and there were no longer arguments about his health. The feeling was so good that he even hit 61 not out against New Zealand at the Gabba.
The body that had been brittle as a NSW rookie had become resilient through hard work with Kevin Chevell, his fitness training mentor who had once again whipped him into shape. Through the programme the thigh, hamstring and calf strains that beset the pigeon legs have been eradicated. McGrath's work ethic has always been strong; his training load, just like his bowling, might embarrass a Benedictine monk. Kostya Tszyu and Mike Tyson recently realised that comebacks on the edge of the age envelope were not easy, but McGrath showed they were possible with a steel-trap mental approach.
There was also another incentive: his Cricket Australia contract ranking dropped while he was injured and his earnings and ego were affected. Money certainly acts as a carrot to the contemporary cricketer and McGrath makes millions from the game. Players of not-so-long-ago would retire so they could earn a living that didn't require the body to be a temple rather than spend months or years recuperating and rehabilitating. McGrath had the support of Cricket Australia's medical team, the board and a full-time contract that allowed him to train, recover and still pay the mortgage. He used the resources well. The dedication and discipline came as no surprise - the completeness of the comeback surely has.
Leaving for England with 499 wickets, he became the second fast bowler to step to 500 at Lord's in July. Only then did his body begin to betray him. What had helped propel McGrath so far is an advantage that few other bowlers have carried. Simply, it is simplicity. The simplicity of his action, his bowling mechanics, is a large part of this successful comeback. He puts a minimal amount of stress on his body because he has an action that doesn't have a lot of stress points. He doesn't bowl fast because he doesn't try to bowl fast, therefore the pressure on his frame is low. McGrath's front leg - the left one - rises only centimetres above the ground in delivery. The true fast bowlers such as Lillee, Thomson and Hogg had theirs almost parallel to the turf, spikes pointing menacingly at the trembling batsmen. This position created huge strain on the hamstrings, groin and the back.
McGrath has a principally front-on action with almost no trunk rotation so his back has been preserved. When he delivers he uses all of his 183 cm height with a braced and extended front leg: there is little impact on the crease because of that lack of leg-lift, the long, tensile arms rotate smoothly and the whip-cord wrist keeps the seam perfect and adds the maximum pace. It is a beautiful and simple movement, the Swiss watch of the timekeepers and the Ernie Els of golf. Perhaps it is the deceptive yet stealthy action that has batsmen not quite cocked to repel another line and length delivery. The term "false sense of security" comes to mind, but how could any rational batsmen feel secure with `Pigeon' creeping to the crease?
Tactic-wise McGrath's methods are similarly simple. He hits the wicket hard, unlike the kissing-the-pitch and sliding-along styles of Brett Lee or the late Malcolm Marshall. This way he makes the margins for error larger and the "good length" a wider concept. Aiming just outside off-stump, he lands the ball on the seam almost every time, increasing the chances of late movement, and in between delivering a loose ball every leap year waits for batsmen to err. He has been helped by wonderful support bowling and some of the best fieldsmen and catchers of all time, who contribute to the never-slackening pressure. The quality of his opponents could be legitimately questioned with strong arguments pointing to the decline in world batting standards, but his victories over the superstars of any era - Lara, Tendulkar, Kirsten, Fleming et al. - are significant.
McGrath, who grew up in Narromine in central NSW, comes from an uncomplicated rural background where hard work and perseverance were essential for survival in a harsh and unforgiving climate. They are conditions similar to elite sport. While the dash and flair of Australia's batsmen are up in neon lights, McGrath has helped haul the side to the top with his simplicity, hard work, adherence to a fundamental yet almost unique bowling discipline and wonderful tactical sense. He is the true colossus of the early 21st century bowlers.
Geoff Lawson took 180 wickets in 46 Tests for Australia between 1980 and 1989.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack Australia 2005-06, Hardie Grant Books, RRP $55, is available in bookstores.